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As part of our economics of unification research project we’re undertaking in partnership with The Education Policy Institute, we recently organised a roundtable in London. Inviting 12 notable names from The Department for Education, Multi Academy Trusts (MATs), the National Governors Association and many more organisations the event was an opportunity to find out first-hand some of the economic challenges and opportunities that face both MATs and schools joining MATs.

These types of events are always a great forum for debate and with different points of view on offer round the table, the conversation was flowing for a number of hours. Some of the points made for very interesting listening that I think would be valuable to both MATs and schools that are considering either starting or joining a MAT. That said, writing a blow-by-blow account of what was said and by who would be of little use to anyone. I think a summary of the key themes is probably the way to play it, so here goes:

Putting pedagogy first

You’d hope that in all this talk of the economics involved in education these days that it was still teaching and learning that was the focus. Encouragingly, that was a sentiment that came across very strongly during the roundtable. It was a resounding ‘yes’ to money saving and efficiencies – but only if it was about raising standards and improving the learning experience as the end game. I’m sure in practical terms this ends up being more of a trade-off than anyone would like, but it’s nice to hear that it forms an integral part of the way decisions are made. There was the feeling that any back office improvements should be exactly that – back office. Initiatives or resource changes that compromised the classroom or teachers themselves were seen as something to be avoided.

Standardisation vs autonomy debate

MATs come in all shapes and sizes. And most of the big ones just seem to be getting bigger. The bigger MATs represented in the discussion saw some value in this, and I’d be surprised if there weren’t quick significant economies of scale to be enjoyed. There’s a flipside to this though. For any expanding organisation, there’s always a challenge in maintaining what one attendee called “the local magic”.

There’s also then the degree to which processes should be standardised across the different schools in the MAT. Standardisation helps measure performance, but to what degree can you standardise the way things are done for schools in different catchment areas? How do the differences in student intake affect this? There would also have to be more than a nod towards the individual brilliance (and frustration) that might come from the teaching faculty.

The business of MATs

What are the key considerations for academies looking to become part of a trust or looking to form a MAT? That’s a good way of summarising the basis for what turned out to be many individual points for discussion during the roundtable.

Attendees cited challenges with finding the right management team with the blend of skills they needed to take the MAT forward. Some were developing teachers into senior leadership positions within the MATs. Others had an issue in attracting function specific resource (finance professionals in particular were a common pain point).

With educational outcomes in mind, building a trust that had the right people and processes in place to deliver IT, governance, and HR was something that nearly all the trusts represented were wrestling with in their own particular way. Some were looking outside of the education sector for people who could bring different perspectives from other industries.

I certainly feel that this is the area that will benefit most from the Economics of Unification research that we’re undertaking.

Overall, the event highlighted the need for more formal research. At the moment, trusts and schools thinking about starting or joining a MAT have nothing but propaganda, anecdotal experiences of other schools and trusts and what ultimately comes down to a ‘best guess’. Adding some substance to enable school leadership teams, boards of directors within MATs and school governors to make the decision that’s in the best interest of educational outcomes in their own institution is something that’s long overdue.

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) will be launching their Economics of Unification report at the BETT show in January. You can receive it :

  • By visiting the Stone stand (E240) in digital format.
  • By registering to attend the launch event held as part of the School Leaders Summit in both hard copy and digital format.
  • By booking to slot to meet with Stone’s MAT team (who’ll be based in the Microsoft Partner Village) in both hard copy and digital format.
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